Boundaries, Part I: Emotional Boundaries

This is a revised version of an essay that I put together previously. It is part of a series of essays on proper boundaries between yourself and the world around you and within you.

One of the things that we as a society seem to have is a poor grasp of emotional boundaries.

Through the course of our lives all of us build within ourselves an intricate set of boundaries and definitions. This is who I am and this is who you are. For some people these boundaries are extremely well defined, for others they barely exist.

There are several basic forms of boundaries that we deal with, which can make this a difficult discussion. One of the better descriptions I’ve seen, from a domestic abuse website, is A successful relationship is composed of two individuals each with a clearly defined sense of her or his own identity. This is certainly part of it, but there is more as well.

The concept of Too Much Information (TMI) is a common one that we frequently deal with. But what constitutes TMI and to whom? There are also societal boundaries: In Japan these boundaries are largely defined by a fairly rigid set of social conventions, which most people follow faithfully. It the US it frequently feels like we muddle our way through it and just expect everyone to have a certain set of boundaries, without having a clear societal code on what those boundaries look like. These boundaries are just as important (and, in the case of societal boundaries, relate to emotional boundaries), but beyond the scope of this essay.

We see emotional boundaries crop up everywhere. Someone who is looking for external validation of their own self-worth generally has a poor emotional boundary in place: they believe that another person’s approval, or disapproval, will directly affect their own worth.

Internalizing insults is another form of poor emotional boundary. As is pointed out by Fuensanta Arismendi in Root, Stone, and Bone: Honoring Andvari and the Vaettir of Money:

That voice told me that maybe I was indeed stupid and insane. If so, this was not because my father screamed so, nor was it my fault. Maybe I was intelligent and perfectly sane; if so, my father’s screams did not change this, and it was not my merit. My father was unkind and uncontrolled and that was his behavior to own–not mine to own for him. So I took back what was mine: my self-worth–and gave him back what was his: his ranting. From that moment on, insults had no hold over me any more.

This is an excellent example of healthy boundaries. The individual is not internalizing the insult and basing their own self-worth off of another individual’s opinion.

This is a hard process to learn and one that is very difficult to master. It means being able to distinguish between the words and the reality of the situation. If a senior engineer tells me that my code has some serious flaws and helps me with them, that is constructive criticism and I would be wise to at least listen to what he or she has to say. But what needs to be realized is that my code is what it is–good or bad–regardless of what the developer says. Their words do not change the nature of the work, though they may change the nature of how I feel about it, and this may be a completely acceptable outcome in the interest of self improvement.

We also see these boundaries crop up in family relationships, which are notorious for having problems in this regard. My parents, for example, have not really accepted the fact that I am pagan (and have been for over a decade). I have told them, which is my responsibility, but having given to them it is not my responsibility to make them believe it, or to shove it down their throats. It was my responsibility to inform them, but what they do with that information is their business. Too often we see a need to either convert or convince, not because it is the right thing (e.g., trying to convince a boss that your design is the correct one) but because on an internal level we need them to accept it to help us allay our doubts, fears, or assuage our own nagging lack of self esteem.

What is important comes down to something that Nathaniel Branden (wiki) points out:

If you take the position that your happiness is primarily in your own hands, you give yourself enormous power. You are not waiting for events or other people to make you happy. You are not trapped by blame, alibis, or self-pity. You are free to look at the options available in any situation and respond as wisely as you can.

The key words are your happiness is primarily in your own hands. You do not need self-pity and do not look to make sure others pity you. Your convictions do not require others to agree with you (not to be confused with “and thus whatever they say is irrelevant”), and your own self-acceptance is not contingent on others accepting you.

This is a hard lesson to learn, and one that many of us struggle with our entire lives, but it is a worthwhile struggle.

Further Reading

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